Tag Archives: Michael Ignatieff

Central European University refuses to be intimidated

Finally I can give you some encouraging news about Central European University. In my last post on the subject I reported on the step taken by Andrew M. Cuomo, governor of the State of New York, who on May 24 “announced his readiness to enter into discussions with the Hungarian Government” concerning the fate of CEU. At that time I expressed my doubts that the Orbán government was actually ready to negotiate in good faith. I based this somewhat pessimistic opinion on a couple of sentences that had appeared in Magyar Idők, which indicated to me that any kind of agreement would still require the prior approval of the U.S. federal government, which we know is impossible to obtain.

Of course, we have no idea what the end result will be, but at least the Orbán government didn’t outright refuse Governor Cuomo’s offer. In fact, Kristóf Altusz, the undersecretary in the foreign ministry who is entrusted with the negotiations, got in touch with Governor Cuomo’s office last Friday. That is certainly a positive step.

This development is due to the brave and self-confident manner in which Michael Ignatieff, the rector of CEU, handled the situation. Cowering or trying to appease is the worst possible tactic to take when under siege by governments like that of Viktor Orbán. The university, led by Ignatieff, refused to be browbeaten. I’m convinced that without his determination and his calling worldwide attention to the Orbán government’s assault on a private university, that telephone conversation between Cuomo and Altusz would never have taken place. In fact, Ignatieff himself came to this conclusion, saying that “we are in a stronger position now than we were before because we resisted and said no.”

Central European University will stay in Budapest at least through the 2017-2018 academic year, Michael Ignatieff announced yesterday at a press conference. He wants to send a clear message to the government: CEU will not be shuttered. When a journalist asked him whether he has a plan B if “things get worse,” Ignatieff’s answer was that even if the government puts more pressure on them, they will not move. As he put it, he refuses to get involved in a game of chicken with the Hungarian government. He also made it clear that he is not going to be idle in the interim, which indicates to me that he is ready to continue his efforts to gain an agreement that would include a guarantee of the university’s unfettered existence in Hungary in the future.

Zsolt Enyedi, the university’s prorector for Hungarian affairs, made a remark which I found significant. He said that “the past few weeks have made us aware that we have a duty to the city and the country. We must remain as long as possible.” This is practically a clarion call to resist the anti-democratic forces that have taken over the reins of government in Budapest. In fact, this stressful episode in the history of the university has only made the resolve of the administration and faculty stronger.

The university will host an international conference on academic freedom on June 22 where the keynote speaker will be Mario Vargas Llosa, the Nobel Prize-winning Peruvian writer. At the graduation ceremony former German president Joachim Gauck will receive the Open Society Prize, which “is awarded annually to an outstanding individual or organization whose achievements have contributed substantially to the creation of an open society.”

The government media published, without any commentary, MTI’s summary of what transpired at the press conference. The only attack in the past two days came from Pesti Srácok, which reported on “the stomach turning anti-family conference” organized by the School of Public Policy/Department of Gender Studies of the university. The conference was obviously an answer of sorts to the mega-conference hosted by the “coalition of conservative organizations from around the globe.” It seems that what made the lectures stomach-turning was that speakers deemed the conservative family model outmoded in our modern society.

A few days ago Magyar Hírlap learned that the evil puppeteer George Soros, who rules the whole world according to the Hungarian government and its media, is coming to Hungary because CEU’s board of trustees will hold its annual meeting on June 24-25 in Budapest, right after the international conference on academic freedom. I don’t know when the decision was made to hold the board meeting in Budapest, but I have the feeling that it was not entirely independent from the recent government attack on the institution. Soros is the honorary chairman of the board. Otherwise, the trustees are a distinguished lot, including such well-known American-Hungarians as author and journalist Kati Marton and George E. Pataki, former governor of New York. The only trustee from Hungary is Attila Chikán, professor of economics at Corvinus University.

We also shouldn’t forget that, thanks to the joint effort of all opposition parties, including Jobbik, the Hungarian constitutional court was obliged to take up the question of the constitutionality of Lex CEU, as everybody in Hungary calls the law designed to expel the university from Hungary. The parliamentary vote took place on April 12. Until today we heard nothing about the fate of the court case. We just learned that, at the suggestion of the chief justice, a special working group will be formed to prepare the case for discussion by the full court. The creation of such working groups is allowed, “in especially complicated cases.” This means that until now the judges haven’t considered the case at all. The fact that the chief justice considers the case so complex that it needs special treatment leads me to believe that there is no agreement within the body about what to do with this hot potato.

May 31, 2017

CEU: New York State vs. Hungarian legal gobbledygook

It was less than a week ago that I wrote a post in which I included a couple of paragraphs about the state of the “negotiations” between the Hungarian government and the administration of the United States. On May 17 the European Parliament “urged the Hungarian Government to immediately suspend all deadlines in the act amending the National Higher Education Act, to start immediate dialogue with the relevant US authorities in order to guarantee the future operations of the Central European University issuing US-accredited degrees, and to make a public commitment that the university can remain in Budapest as a free institution.”

Today, a week later, the National Higher Education Act is still in force and the Hungarian government has shown no intention of altering the recently adopted law that makes the continued existence of Central European University (CEU) in Budapest impossible. Neither has the Hungarian government gotten in touch with the “relevant US authorities.” As for direct negotiations with the administration of the university, after about a month the government sent a bunch of middle-level bureaucrats who, as it turned out, had no decision-making authority.

It matters not that the United States government made it abundantly clear that the U.S. federal government has no authority to negotiate with a foreign power about educational matters relating to schools and universities. The Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs simply ignored the message and kept insisting that the State Department is ill informed. The Secretary of Education is authorized to conduct negotiations on the fate of Central European University with the Hungarian government. Tamás Menczer, a former sports reporter and now spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, confidently announced that, in the past, the two countries had signed three agreements dealing with education. Buried in the government archives was a 1977 agreement on cultural, educational, scientific and technological cooperation between the two countries. The second was signed in 1998. It dealt with the legal status of the American International School Budapest, which functions under the aegis of the Office of Overseas Schools of the U.S. State Department. The third was from 2007, when the two countries signed an agreement about a committee that would oversee student exchange programs between the two countries. Clearly, these cases have nothing to do with the issue on hand, but that fact didn’t seem to bother the foreign ministry, whose spokesman announced that the ball is still in the United States’ court. The Hungarian government is just waiting for a letter from the secretary of education inviting them for a discussion about Central European University. Kristóf Altusz, an undersecretary in the ministry, claimed that about four weeks ago he “negotiated” with the U.S. government, but his approach was described by the U.S. authorities as “seeking information.” I believe this meant that Altusz was told he was knocking on the wrong door.

The Hungarian government is obviously stalling. If nothing is done, they will wait until CEU’s next academic year is in jeopardy. Students normally apply to universities in the winter, and sometime in the spring the applicants get the much awaited letter about their future. Under the present circumstances, the Hungarian government is playing with the fate of the best university in Hungary. But this is exactly the goal. Not only the ministry of foreign affairs but also the ministry of human resources, which is in charge of education, are waiting for the letter they know full well will not come. Zoltán Balog told Index that “I’m expecting a letter from the madam secretary who is competent to negotiate, which I will probably receive. It will be after [the arrival of the letter] that I will formulate my position concerning the case.”

A day after this encounter, on May 23, the U.S. State Department published a press statement titled “Government of Hungary’s Legislation Impacting Central European University.” The statement read:

The United States again urges the Government of Hungary to suspend implementation of its amended higher education law, which places discriminatory, onerous requirements on U.S.-accredited institutions in Hungary and threatens academic freedom and independence.

The Government of Hungary should engage directly with affected institutions to find a resolution that allows them to continue to function freely and provide greater educational opportunity for the citizens of Hungary and the region.

The U.S. Government has no authority or intention to enter into negotiations on the operation of Central European University or other universities in Hungary.

The Hungarian Foreign Minister’s reaction to this statement was what one would expect from the Orbán government. “It is regrettable,” said Tamás Menczer, that “no assistance comes from the American federal government…. A press release is a far cry from an official diplomatic answer outlining a negotiating agenda.” The Hungarian government is obviously quite prepared to wait for an official diplomatic letter, which will never arrive. So there is an impasse, exactly what the Hungarian government was hoping for. This way they can show the world that they are flexible and ready to negotiate and that the deadlock is entirely the fault of the United States.

The deadlock might have been broken this afternoon when Governor Andrew M. Cuomo of the State of New York announced his readiness to enter into discussions with the Hungarian government. Let me quote the whole statement:

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced his readiness to enter into discussions with the Hungarian Government to continue the New York State-Government of Hungary relationship that enables the Central European University to operate in Budapest.

The Government of Hungary has recently adopted legislation that would force the closure of CEU. This legislation directly contradicts the 2004 Joint Declaration with the State of New York, which supported CEU’s goal of achieving Hungarian accreditation while maintaining its status as an accredited American institution.

The Government of Hungary has stated publicly that it can only discuss the future of CEU in Hungary with relevant US authorities, which in this case is the State of New York. The Governor welcomes the opportunity to resolve this matter and to initiate discussions with the Hungarian government without delay.

The Central European University in Budapest is a symbol of American-Hungarian cooperation and a world-class graduate university that is chartered by the State of New York. For more than 25 years, this institution has provided tremendous value to Hungary and to its diverse student body representing more than 100 countries.

An agreement to keep CEU in Budapest as a free institution is in everyone’s best interests, and I stand ready to enter into discussions with the Hungarian Government to continue the New York State-Government of Hungary relationship and ensure that the institution remains a treasured resource for students around the world.

This offer at least broke the silence, but I’m not at all sure whether it will break the impasse. At a press conference Michael Ignatieff, rector of Central European University, welcomed Governor Cuomo’s statement and expressed his hope that the Hungarian government will react positively to the New York governor’s willingness to negotiate. Ignatieff reminded his audience that Cuomo’s statement is timely because today is the day when the Hungarian government must answer the European Commission’s official letter on the possible infringement procedure.

Népszava got in touch with both the ministry of foreign affairs and the ministry of human resources about their reaction to Cuomo’s letter, but the paper has received no answer as yet. On the other hand, the government paper Magyar Idők came out the following intriguing couple of sentences: “If the headquarters of a university is in a federal state where the central government is not authorized to enter into binding international agreements, then the issuing of the document must be based on a prior agreement with the central government. These preliminary agreements with the federal government must be concluded within six months after the date of entry into the force of law.” It is such a complicated text that I may have misinterpreted the meaning of these sentences. So, to be safe, here is the original Hungarian text: “… ha az egyetem székhelye egy föderatív államban van, és ott a nemzetközi szerződés kötelező hatályának elismerésére nem a központi kormányzat jogosult, akkor a központi kormánnyal létrejött előzetes megállapodáson kell alapulnia az oklevél kiadásához szükséges nemzetközi szerződésnek. Ezeket az előzetes megállapodásokat a föderatív állam kormányával a törvény hatályba lépését – a kihirdetését követő napot – követő fél éven belül meg kell kötni.”

If my interpretation is correct, the Hungarian government will invoke some arcane (or newly minted) law, imposing a most likely unattainable legal requirement which will extend the agony of Central European University for at least six more months.

May 24, 2017

Is Orbán an anti-Semite? Is Putin blackmailing him? A day of charges and countercharges

The Hungarian political arena was hyperactive today, so this post will be somewhat scattershot.

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó gave a press conference, followed by his ministry’s issuance of a statement demanding the resignation of Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans for “having accused Hungary’s Prime Minister and the country’s government of anti-Semitism.” Szijjártó insisted that the present government is in fact a benefactor of Hungary’s Jewish community, which “can always count on the respect, friendship and protection of the Hungarian government.” Yet Timmermans in an interview given to Die Zeit described Viktor Orbán as “clearly anti-Semitic” for “calling George Soros a financial speculator” in the European Parliament a week ago. Szijjártó retorted that the vice president was a coward for making the “strong and furthermore unfounded accusation” in an interview instead of face-to-face with Viktor Orbán.

The fact is that the government-induced Soros-bashing that has been going on for some time uses a vocabulary that is usually reserved in Hungary for anti-Semitic discourse: speculator, financial circles, globalization, multi-national business circles, and other similar epithets. Timmermans is not the first person to suspect that the government’s constant references to professions or occupations often associated with Jews are meant to awaken anti-Semitic feelings in Hungarians.

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a journalist from a German radio station who asked me whether all these attacks against Soros have something to do with his Jewish background. That was her first thought.

György Konrád, the internationally recognized Hungarian author, wrote an open letter to Viktor Orbán, whom he knew personally from the days when Orbán was a liberal, accusing him of anti-Semitism. The letter was translated into English and published in The Tablet. Bálint Magyar, the author of many books on the “mafia state,” wrote a brief note on his Facebook page a few days ago in which he reported on the results of his Google search for the following word combinations: “spekuláns-tőzsde” (stock market) (27,400), “spekuláns-zsidó” (28,700), and “spekuláns-zsidó-Soros” (18,500). Clearly, the vocabulary of the government in connection with George Soros does resonate. I did my own search on “Jewish speculators” in  Google Images. And what did I find? The portrait of George Soros accompanying an article in The Greanville Post titled “Judeo-Centrism: Myths and Mania.” According to Fakenewschecker.com, “this publication is among the most untrustworthy sources in the media.” The article is pure anti-Semitic drivel. The portrait of Soros was put up to adorn this dreadful article only three days ago. So, it’s no wonder that people are suspicious of the language used by Viktor Orbán and the Hungarian government.

The search for “Jewish speculator” produced this portrait of George Soros

Once the foreign ministry finished with Timmermans, it was time to summon Canada’s ambassador, Isabelle Poupart, for a dressing down after she expressed concern over the fate of Central European University and academic freedom in general. She added that Canada “encourages a constructive dialogue” to resolve the matter. Nowadays even such a mild statement is cause enough for an ambassador to be dragged into the foreign ministry.

And that takes me to an article written by László Palkovics and published by the conservative Canadian National Post. The original title of the piece was “Calling out Michael Ignatieff,” a phrase that appeared in Palkovics’s piece, which was subsequently changed to “Michael Ignatieff is waging a media war against my government to suit his own ambitions.” In it, Palkovics accuses Ignatieff of “hijacking academic freedom in Hungary,” a curious interpretation in view of what has been happening in Hungary in the last four or five weeks. Although his alleged aim was “to dispel Ignatieff’s myths and set the record straight once and for all,” he simply repeated the lies that we have heard from government sources all along. Ignatieff responded to Palkovics’s accusations. He began by saying that “a battle to defend academic freedom is underway in Budapest and Canadians need to know what is at stake,” and he went on to point out all the factual errors in Palkovics’s article. I wonder what the reaction of the National Post editors was when they got the news today about the Hungarian government’s treatment of the Canadian ambassador. Perhaps Palkovics’s claims were not quite true after all.

Now let’s move to a topic that has been the talk of the town for at least two weeks: Ferenc Gyurcsány’s repeated statements that he was approached by unnamed men who claim to have hard evidence of Viktor Orbán’s unlawful or perhaps criminal financial activities, which would make the prime minister the subject of blackmail. The blackmailer, according to the story, is none other than Vladimir Putin. This would explain the sudden and otherwise inexplicable change in Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy orientation. Prior to 2010, he was a fierce opponent of anything to do with Russia and Putin, but after that date he became Putin’s Trojan horse inside the European Union.

Gyurcsány gave tantalizing interviews. Every time he appeared he offered up a few more details. He indicated that although he saw the documents, they were not in his possession. But he claimed that if Orbán sued him, then those people holding the documents would be compelled to release them and testify. At one point he gave Orbán 72 hours to make a move, which of course came and went without Orbán doing anything. Many people were skeptical of Gyurcsány’s revelations in the first place, but after the Gyurcsány “ultimatum” had no results, more and more people became convinced that the story was just the figment of Gyurcsány’s imagination. After all, they said, Gyurcsány uses these kinds of tricks to call attention to himself and his party.

Since the appearance of László Botka as MSZP’s candidate to be Hungary’s next prime minister, the left-of-center parties have been fighting each other instead of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. Botka’s bête-noire is Ferenc Gyurcsány. He declared on many occasions that Gyurcsány cannot have a political role. In brief, he would like to have the votes of Gyurcsány’s followers without Gyurcsány. Two days ago Botka in an interview decided to join forces with those who consider Gyurcsány’s revelations bogus. “Gyurcsány must leave politics if he has no proof of the Russians’ having information about financial transactions that can be connected to Fidesz and personally to Viktor Orbán.”

MSZP’s position was that the allegation was simply not credible enough to hold hearings on it in the parliamentary committee on national security. Chairman Zsolt Molnár (MSZP) decided not to call a session to discuss the matter. Bernadett Szél (LMP), also a fierce opponent of Gyurcsány, agreed. As they put it, they’re not getting involved in a political soap opera.

That was the situation until today, when Bertalan Tóth, leader of the MSZP parliamentary delegation, announced that his party will after all demand hearings on the issue. Both Viktor Orbán and Ferenc Gyurcsány, he said, will be invited to testify. Molnár added that he wants information from the civilian and military secret services as well. Gyurcsány responded promptly, saying that he would attend as long as Viktor Orbán also makes an appearance, which, let’s face it, is unlikely. However, he is willing to personally and officially hand over all information in his possession to the chairman of the committee.

Depending on the nature of the information, this development might have very serious consequences. The only thing that is not at all clear to me is why the MSZP leadership suddenly changed its mind and now supports a further probe into the issue. One possibility is that they came to the conclusion that since Orbán will not attend, Gyurcsány would also refuse to testify. In that case, it would be patently obvious that his stories were inventions. Perhaps that would ruin his political career, which would make their job of getting rid of him simple. I’m sure they were not expecting Gyurcsány to offer to share all the information he has about Orbán’s possible criminal activities. What will happen if the accusations are credible? That may improve his standing, which would not be in the interest of MSZP, whose popularity, despite Botka’s month-long campaigning, is stagnating. MSZP has embarked on a dangerous journey, and no one knows at the moment where it will end.

May 5, 2017

Medián: Serious loss for Fidesz, gain for Jobbik

The latest findings of Medián published in HVG bore the witty title “Universal Decline,” reflecting the pollsters’ belief that the drop in Fidesz’s popularity is largely due to Viktor Orbán’s decision to launch a frontal attack against Central European University.

This reversal in the fortunes of the party is considerable. While in January 37% of the electorate would have voted for Fidesz, that percentage has now shrunk to 31%. This amounts to the loss of almost half a million voters. Underlying this drop is a general dissatisfaction with the governing party. Medián usually asks its respondents to name the one party they would under no circumstances vote for. In January only 37% of the respondents named Fidesz, but by now 46% of those surveyed said they would never cast their vote for the government party. In January half of the electorate were satisfied with the work of the government; today it’s only 40%. In January 46% of the people were hopeful about the future. Today that number has plummeted to 33%, with 57% expecting worse times to come. The percentage of those who want a change of government in 2018 has increased from 48% to 52%.

Left–red: total population; green: electorate; orange: active voters. Right–after the list of parties come the categories “doesn’t know,” “doesn’t tell,” “definitely will not vote”

After looking at these figures, one can safely say that Viktor Orbán’s decision to take on George Soros and CEU was politically unwise. At yet it’s fairly easy to see how and why it came about. Orbán and his strategists, when developing their political moves in preparation for next year’s election, were most likely convinced that their winning card was Viktor Orbán’s very successful handling of the migrant issue. Whether we approve or disapprove of his methods, from his own point of view his refugee policy was a roaring success. An overwhelming majority of the population fully support Orbán’s policies, including many who did not previously vote for Fidesz. Thus Orbán and his strategists quite logically opted to continue the same loud anti-migrant rhetoric. Everything else–the personal attacks on George Soros, on Central European University, on the NGOs, and on Brussels–were meant to serve this purpose. Unfortunately for Orbán, the grand strategy turned out to be a bust domestically, and his government’s standing in Europe has sunk to its lowest level in the last seven years.

By the way, the Medián poll debunks a widely held view that outside of Budapest (and the Budapest intellectual elite in particular) people are largely ignorant about the anti-government demonstrations and their precipitating cause–the attack on CEU. Among those surveyed, about 80% had heard of the demonstrations, and half of those named the attempted closing of CEU as the cause of the protests. They didn’t even need any prompting; they offered the information on their own. People in the countryside (vidék) are just as well informed on this issue as the inhabitants of Budapest. The great majority of Hungarians think it would be a shame if the government shuttered CEU. Only 32% think that CEU is in a privileged position vis-à-vis other Hungarian universities and that therefore the government is justified in its efforts to close it down.

While we are on the subject of CEU, I would note that there seems to be total disarray in government circles about their plans to deal with this issue. Péter Szijjártó this morning, in an impromptu press conference, was still talking about an intergovernmental agreement between Hungary and the United States even though it had been made crystal clear to Budapest that the U.S. federal government is not authorized to negotiate with a foreign power on the fate of an educational institution. Undersecretary László Palkovics, who has been suspiciously quiet in the last few weeks, published a highly insulting article in the conservative Canadian National Post titled “Calling out Michael Ignatieff.” He accused the president of CEU of “hijacking academic freedom in Hungary.” In the article he repeats the old Hungarian demand of “a bilateral agreement between the institution’s country of origin and Hungary.” As if nothing had happened in the interim. Viktor Orbán is refusing to answer questions on CEU. He sent ATV’s reporter to László Trócsányi, minister of justice, who is supposed to come up with some clever legal answer to the European Commission’s objections. At the moment, however, he is “extremely uncertain” as to the legal underpinnings of the EC’s position on the issue. One thing is sure. The Hungarian government will wait until the last possible moment to respond to the European Commission on the CEU case.

To round out this post, let’s go back to the Medián poll to see who benefited from the drop in Fidesz support. The real winner was Jobbik, which gained four percentage points. In January 10% of the electorate would have voted for Jobbik. Today it is 14% which, given Jobbik voters’ enthusiasm for going to the polls, means that the party would receive 20% of the actual votes cast. This sudden jump in popularity is most likely due to the highly successful Jobbik “You Work—They Steal” campaign.

Collectively, the parties on the left also gained four percentage points. Those who expected miracles from László Botka’s announcement of his readiness to head MSZP’s ticket in preparation for the 2018 election must be disappointed. MSZP’s 9% is nothing to brag about, especially since Botka has been canvassing the country for the last month. MSZP’s standing is practically the same as it was in January. As for his own popularity, his name by now is widely known, but his popularity hasn’t moved upward. The two great losers in the popularity ranking are Viktor Orbán (-9) and János Áder (-11).

One more interesting item. Endre Hann and Zsuzsa Lakatos, who coauthored the article on the Medián poll, state that “the extrusion of Ferenc Gyurcsány … proved to be divisive. Two-thirds of MSZP voters would still like to see him ‘in an important political role.’ On the other hand, it is true that Botka … is considered to be a qualified candidate for the premiership by 54% of the DK voters.”

I’m curious what Viktor Orbán’s next step will be. So far there has been a reluctance to drop the divisive and damaging CEU affair, which is eating away at his support. Moreover, he is being confronted with a growing anti-Russian sentiment and charges of Vladimir Putin’s stranglehold on Viktor Orbán. László Kéri, an astute political observer, is certain that today “we live in a different world from the one a couple of months ago.” He predicts that the decline of the Orbán regime is inevitable. He compared the current governmental chaos to the last days of the Gyurcsány government. But, of course, Orbán is no Gyurcsány, who, although perhaps too late, resigned. A similar move from Viktor Orbán is unimaginable.

May 3, 2017

The anti-EU, anti-Soros campaigns continue with renewed vigor

As Der Spiegel reported yesterday afternoon, Chancellor Angela Merkel, when asked her opinion of the outcome of the meeting between the presidency of the European People’s Party and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, remarked that promises are one thing but she is waiting for “the actual results.” It seems that Viktor Orbán can no longer hoodwink European politicians. They have learned over the years that it is foolhardy to trust Orbán and his fellow Fidesz politicians.

Merkel’s comment came after the meeting about which we now know a little more. Today Der Spiegel reported that EC President Jean-Claude Juncker and Orbán, who were seated next to one another, engaged in an extended, vehement argument. At one point Jyrki Katainen, vice president for jobs, growth, investment, and competitiveness, apparently warned Orbán that the regional subsidies could be reduced in the future.

Der Spiegel opined that the EPP leadership is mistaken if they think that Orbán’s verbal agreement will be translated into deeds. This is also more or less what Rafał Trzaskowski, a Polish MP from the Civic Platform party who participated in the EPP meeting, suggested when he said that “the question is now whether he will follow what he says. Then, obviously, he can stay with us.” This comment, which I missed yesterday, further convinces me that Fidesz’s position in the EPP is not at all secure and the question of expulsion did come up during the meeting.

Admittedly, only one day has passed since the EPP meeting, but there is no sign of any let-up in anti-EU, anti-Soros propaganda in Hungary. On the contrary, it seems to me that Orbán’s answer to his “humiliation” is open defiance. Nobody really commented on the fact that Viktor Orbán was accompanied by Antal Rogán, his propaganda minister, during his stay in Brussels. Rogán sat silently next to him during his appearance before the European Parliament, and he could be seen at the brief encounter with journalists after the European Council meeting was over on Saturday afternoon.

Orbán’s forced grin may be a sign of discomfort

Rogán’s task is to explain to the Hungarian people what “really” happened in Brussels. He started his propaganda campaign this morning by giving an interview on Magyar Rádió’s “Vasárnapi Újság” in which he emphasized Hungary’s right to maintain positions different from those of the EU majority on certain issues. If necessary, the Hungarian government will take legal action to defend this right. Interestingly enough, he didn’t mention Central European University, the NGOs, or the “Stop Brussels” campaign. His concern was the migrant question. On this there can be no compromise, Rogán maintained. As for Fidesz’s relationship with the EPP, Rogán came up with an intriguing scenario. His claim is that George Soros has been working behind the scenes to have Fidesz expelled from the EPP. According to Rogán, Soros is also putting pressure on the European Union to force Hungary to dismantle the fence and the transit zones on the Serbian-Hungarian border, but this is not negotiable.

We know that the migrant question was discussed during the EPP meeting because politico.hu reported that Saturday’s meeting became tense “when Orbán said he will never accept Muslim migrants” into his country. The refugee crisis is Orbán’s most effective political weapon. Orbán contends that the refugees who came through the Balkans were not desperate people running away from war and the refugee camps in Turkey and elsewhere. Instead, someone for political reasons must have encouraged these men and women to migrate to Europe. Orbán first blamed Angela Merkel, who invited the refugees to Germany. Later he pointed the finger at George Soros, the perfect scapegoat for his political purposes. By accusing Soros of evil designs against Hungary and, in fact, against the whole of Europe, he can move against both the bothersome NGOs and Central European University. CEU may not interfere with his policies as some of the NGOs do, but an independent university over which he has no jurisdiction remains an irritant.

Bence Rétvári, undersecretary of the ministry of human resources, identified Soros as the source of all the problems Europe and Hungary are facing today. Soros’s meeting with Juncker especially bothers the members of the Orbán government. They envisage a whole Soros network that “applies pressure on the country.” Rétvári directed another attack on Central European University and its president, Michael Ignatieff, who after all “led the Canadian Liberal party and therefore behaves like a politician.” Despite all the protestation, he claims, CEU is not an independent university.

The brand new “Stop Brussels!” and anti-Soros ad, which runs on several television channels, can be seen here with English subtitles.

Zoltán Lomnici, Jr., an extreme right-winger and an active member of the government-sponsored CÖF, a pseudo-NGO, demanded on M1, the state television news station, that the 226 members of the European Parliament named in a document released by DC Leaks should be investigated because of the possibility that they serve foreign interests. Lomnici is referring to a publication prepared by the KumQuat Consult for Open Society European Policy Institute titled “Reliable allies in the European Parliament (2014-2019).” The list contains mostly Social Democratic, Green, and Liberal politicians. Lomnici pointed out that of the 17 MEPs who spoke during the plenary session on the Hungarian question 11 appeared on the Open Society’s list. Nézőpont Intézet, a pro-government think tank, devoted an opinion piece to the subject in which the author listed such important politicians as Martin Schulz, Olli Rehn, Gianni Pittella, Guy Verhofstadt, Sophie in’t Veld, and Ulrike Lunacek. Even Frank Engel, a Christian Democrat, is listed, which naturally explains why Engel would like to see Fidesz expelled from the EPP. Magyar Idők was pleased to report that Prime Minister Robert Fico is also contemplating steps to achieve “the transparency of civic organizations in Slovakia” and that the Polish government, just like Hungary, has problems with the Norwegian Fund.

The current Macedonian crisis is a godsend for the Orbán government’s Soros bashing. I should note here that Hungary, alongside Russia, is backing the Macedonian president, Gjorge Ivanov, who was a guest of the Orbán government about a month ago. On April 18 a Fidesz member of parliament addressed a question to Péter Szijjártó concerning the situation in Macedonia where, in his opinion, George Soros is behind the disturbances in Skopje. “The people of Macedonia have had enough of this and they began a ‘Let’s Stop Soros’ movement.” László Szabó, undersecretary in the foreign ministry, the man who will be the next Hungarian ambassador in Washington, replied. He claimed that Soros has been organizing anti-government demonstrations ever since May 2015. Since then, Péter Szijjártó released a statement about foreign interference in Macedonia’s internal affairs, which bore a suspicious resemblance to the statement published by the Russian ministry of foreign affairs.

In any case, the anti-Soros campaign is going on with renewed intensity as is the campaign to sign and return the “Stop Brussels!” national consultation questionnaires, to which both the European Commission and the presidency of the European People’s Party have strenuously objected. In fact, the government just launched a new campaign to urge people to return the questionnaires because they will play a vital role in the government’s defense of the country against the attacks by the European Union. At the same time, the government is trying to explain away the real meaning of the national consultation which, according to the latest interpretation, is simply a way of expressing the Hungarian government’s intentions to reform and improve the structure of the European Union. Somehow, I don’t think that Frans Timmermans and Joseph Daul will fall for this latest ruse of Viktor Orbán.

April 30, 2017

Michael Ignatieff in Brussels ahead of Viktor Orbán

Tomorrow Viktor Orbán will have to make an appearance in the European Parliament in, as 888.hu put it, “the defense of our homeland.” In his long article Gábor Nagy recounts the indignities Orbán has suffered over the years at the hands of the European Commission. He lists all the “unfair” sanctions and infringement procedures, which, I can assure you, are numerous. Dozens of penalties have been levied against Hungary every year. And now, once again, the author continues, the homeland is under unjust fire. The Hungarian people should rest assured, however, that “Orbán is still fighting Brussels,” with the prospect of victory. Or at least that is what the grammatical construction of the sentence implies.

Even though the author envisages victory, a couple of sentences at the end of the article indicate that there is plenty of worry in Hungary over the outcome of this latest bout between Orbán and the European Commission and Parliament. The author calls attention to the fact that “right after the Wednesday EP meeting, Juncker & Co. will decide on new infringement procedures as a result of closing the Serbian-Hungarian border and the Central European University law.” Worry is also evident in a Magyar Hírlap editorial about the possible expulsion of Fidesz from the European People’s Party. It quotes all possible statements by Christian Democratic politicians in defense of Viktor Orbán and tries to calm nerves by quoting a Hungarian proverb about the porridge which is not as hot when eaten as it was while being cooked.

So far the Hungarian government is not backing down. Viktor Orbán declared that “if it’s war, let it be war,” meaning he is ready for a fight. The Orbán government found a new “star” among the Christian Democrats, István Hollik, a relatively young man who has become a forceful and extremely loyal spokesman in defense of the Fidesz-KDNP position. Practically all of his assertions are false, but he utters them with a conviction and force worthy of Szilárd Németh, except that Hollik’s demeanor and delivery are more civilized. Today in a press conference he delivered an indictment of both George Soros and the European Union. Soros, we were told, has been banned from “many countries–from the United Kingdom to Israel,” and “more than a dozen politicians in Brussels are in Soros’s pocket.” It is “an open secret, according to him” that his men are in the European Council and the European Parliament. As far as Hungary’s membership in and support from the EPP are concerned, Hollik claims to know that “the members of the European People’s Party are certain that EPP’s leaders, just as in earlier times, will not believe the mendacious allegations against Hungary and will give the country an opportunity to explain the facts and to clarify the misunderstandings.” My feeling is that this optimistic bit of news comes from the Fidesz contingent within EPP.

Well, if it depends on Michael Ignatieff, I don’t think there will be any misunderstanding in the EU about what the Hungarian government is doing as far as Central European University is concerned. Here are a couple of sentences from Ignatieff’s talk at an event organized on the issue of CEU in the European parliament, as related by The Guardian. His verdict on what the Orbán government is doing to his university is crystal clear. “It is just outrageous and these people around here need to understand how outrageous it is. This will be the first time since 1945 that a European state had actually tried to shut down a free institution that conforms to the law, that has good academic standards, operates legally…. My job is not to tell Europe what to do about it but to say: here are the stakes, this is why it matters.” Unusually frank words in the political world of the European Union. When Ignatieff was asked what Orbán hoped to achieve in persecuting CEU, he said: “You have really got to ask him. I can’t characterize what the agenda is with confidence and for me that is not the issue. I don’t care what the agenda of Mr. Orbán is, actually. My point is you don’t take an institution hostage to serve your political agenda, I don’t care what it is.” Ignatieff is, by the way, “cautiously optimistic” that the European Union will launch infringement proceedings against the Hungarian government.

Ignatieff also participated in a discussion organized by the Free University of Brussels (ULB/VUB), where the Hungarian ambassador to Brussels was present. The ambassador admitted that the European Commission might initiate an infringement procedure against Hungary on account of the CEU scandal, but “we are ready to face them and settle the disputes together.” There might, however, be a faster and more effective way to punish the Orbán government. You may recall that Ignatieff talked not only to Frans Timmermans but also to Carlos Moedas, who is in charge of research, science, and innovation. It is possible that the new law can be seen as interfering with the free flow of scientific inquiry, and therefore it might run counter to EU laws. In fact, that possibility was brought up in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. If this is the case, the EU could withdraw support for scientific research in Hungary.

Earlier, I thought there would be an easy way for the Orbán government to get out of this sticky situation. With the help of Jobbik, 64 members of parliament signed a request to the Constitutional Court to take up the case and decide on the constitutionality of the new law on higher education. The Hungarian legal community is practically unanimous in its conviction that the law is unconstitutional. Such a ruling by the court would provide cover for the government. It could drop the whole idea and thus save face and, at the same time, demonstrate to the world that, after all, Hungary is still a democratic state. Unfortunately, there is a problem of time. If President Áder had sent the amendments to the court for review, the Constitutional Court would have had to rule within 30 days. But in the case of a parliamentary petition, it might be several months before a verdict could be expected. So, in the short run this is not a workable solution.

For now, everything depends on what happens by the end of the week in Brussels.

April 25, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s latest war is turning out to be a big mistake

Yesterday I ended my post by saying that, according to the latest public opinion poll conducted by the Publicus Intézet, within a few months the number of Hungarians who think the Orbán government’s foreign policy serves Russia’s interests tripled from 9% to 26%. That is a dramatic change. Given the mood in Budapest, I assume that this trend will continue. B. György Nagy, who reported on Publicus’s findings in Vasárnapi Hírek, titled his article “They made a big mistake with the Russians.” That is, Orbán’s decision, for whatever reason, to court the Russians has backfired badly. The government media’s overtly pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda, the government’s undisguised admiration for Vladimir Putin, the population’s ambivalent feelings concerning Paks–all these have shaken public confidence in the Orbán government itself. The war on Brussels, on George Soros, on Central European University, and on civic organizations has only compounded these problems.

The events of the last two days have increased pressure on the government. We just learned that a Russian diplomat knew ahead of time about Magomed Dasaev’s planned vigilante act. Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány announced on Friday that there are credible grounds for Vladimir Putin’s alleged blackmail of Viktor Orbán, and today he held a press conference where he further elaborated on some of the details of the evidence he claims to have. Another demonstration against Russian interference in Hungarian affairs is going on this moment near the Russian Embassy. (The police cordoned off a large area next to the building.) The Party of the Two-tailed Dog staged a hilarious anti-government demonstration, reported on by major media outlets all over the world. On top of it all, the massive propaganda campaign against CEU and the NGOs has not shifted Hungarian public opinion. Where is the political wizardry of Viktor Orbán?

The “Stop Moscow” demonstration / Photo: Népszava / Gergő Tóth

Hungarians are not following the lead of the government when it calls them to wage war against Central European University. Although we often hear commentators claim that most people have no idea what CEU is all about, that’s not the case. According to Publicus Intézet, only 22% of Hungarians sampled hadn’t heard of the university and only 14% support the government’s plan to close it down. A sizable majority (63%) are against the government’s anti-CEU campaign.

Moreover, the overwhelming majority of Hungarians think that in a well-functioning democracy civic groups, representing the interests of the people, must exist. In fact, in the last three months the percentage of people who believe NGOs are important government watchdogs has grown from 68% to 74%. When it comes to foreign-supported NGOs engaged in political activities, the majority (57%) still support the government’s position on the issue, but three months ago their number was higher (60%). In general, 66% of Hungarians disapprove of the government’s shuttering of civic organizations.

The government is not much more successful when it comes to the campaign against George Soros. When in June 2016 people were asked whether Soros wants to topple the government, only 27% of the respondents agreed while 44% disagreed. Despite all the propaganda, Hungarians’ perception of Soros hasn’t changed much. Today 47% percent of the respondents don’t believe that Soros wants to overthrow the Orbán government and 32% thinks otherwise. The same Hungarians believe that Russia poses a greater threat to the country than the American-Hungarian financier. In November only 32% of the voters considered Russia a threat; by now it is 42%. On the other hand, the vast majority (close to 70%) have trust in the United States and the European Union. Somewhere along the way Viktor Orbán has lost his bearings.

Moving on to Brussels, today Michael Ignatieff, president of CEU, had conversations with Frans Timmermans, first deputy president of the European Commission, and Commissioner Carlos Moedas, who is responsible for research, science, and innovation. Tomorrow he will take part in an event organized by the four largest delegations in the European Parliament. On Thursday George Soros will meet with Jean-Claude Juncker and Commissioner Vĕra Jourová, who is in charge of justice, consumers, and gender equality. On Friday Soros will talk with Frans Timmermans and Jyrki Katainen, vice president and commissioner in charge of jobs, growth, investment, and competitiveness.

On Saturday the European People’s Party will hold a meeting to discuss the Hungarian situation. Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP group, warned Viktor Orbán a few days ago that Fidesz’s membership in the EPP caucus shouldn’t be taken for granted. He emphasized that core principles such as freedom of research and teaching are not negotiable.

In addition, there will be a plenary session of the European Parliament devoted to the “CEU” law. Apparently, Orbán is planning to attend. Finally, we mustn’t forget about the serious investigation underway by the European Commission “on the state of democracy” in Hungary, where further sanctions against the Orbán-led country are expected.

I can’t help thinking that this cheap, domestically ineffectual propaganda stunt against Soros, CEU, and the NGOs was one of Viktor Orbán’s greatest mistakes, one that may eventually unravel the whole fabric of his carefully crafted political system. Whether it was inspired by Vladimir Putin, as many people suspect, or it was designed to boost the resolve of Fidesz’s core supporters ahead the election next year doesn’t really matter. It can only be described as a colossal blunder. I suspect that Orbán didn’t expect such a vehement reaction both at home and abroad.

I have no idea what Orbán’s next step will be, but for now the Soros bashing continues unabated in the government media. In fact, if anything, it has intensified. Last week the latest spokesman for Fidesz, Balázs Hidvéghi, claimed that within one year “George Soros pumped 1.2 billion forints [$4,187,172] into his agent organizations in order to build up a new oppositional body to make persistent attacks against the legitimate Hungarian government.” This is more, he added, than the amount of money parties receive from the government annually.

Perhaps there is some inner logic to Orbán’s recent wars, but from the outside they don’t make much sense.

April 24, 2017